Absurdity of Student Growth Scores Sees Light of Day! Woo-hoo!

That should be the headline of Teachers Unions’ newsletters all across Florida this month, but it won’t be. And I know I am in the minority here among teachers, but here comes my unpopular opinion: I am thrilled teachers’ Value Added Scores are being released.

The Florida Times-Union sued the State of Florida for the release of these scores. It seems ironic that the State of Florida was the defendant(!), meaning the State of Florida paid hundreds of thousands, if not millions, in an attempt to hide these scores. Why? Did the State all of a sudden develop concern for teachers’ dignity?

We should honestly think about why the State felt hiding these scores was in their interest. We don’t have to think very hard, because the Florida Department of Education told us themselves:

FLDOE officials “warned against using the data to judge teachers’ performance.” Even though this data was designed — and still is used — by the State specifically to “judge teachers’ performance.”

So the State is using the scores to measure teachers, while telling the rest of us not to do the same. It matters because it’s ruining people’s lives, and driving good people out of Education. This data has some great teachers fighting for their careers, and other great teachers switching careers in disgust rather than battling against poor evaluations based on a metric the State admits to be bogus.

I believe in our hearts every teacher already knew this: it’s going to be an embarrassment and a blow to those in the State who think these metrics are valid. I’m calling it now that it will not be embarrassing or harmful to teachers. No, not even to those of us who have low scores. The scores are going to be so laughable (way too many false “bad scores” when only 9% of teachers get “bad scores”), that no one will blame the low-scoring teachers.

Student Growth scores, invalid as they are (they imply teaching is nothing more than test prep) are, sadly, here to stay (I hope I’m wrong). The best we can hope for is that they will be improved by seeing the light of day. And if the public is paying attention (we can only hope), this will happen because everyone will wonder why it’s so half-baked.

With regard to the plaintiffs, do we really think the Times-Union sued so they could merely print a chart of teachers and their scores? Of course not, that would be boring; no one cares, and that wouldn’t sell newspapers. The Times-Union is (a.) seeking stories and (b.) fighting to preserve an open political process so they can have the option to perform investigative journalism.

And we as teachers should be thrilled at the kinds of stories that have been and will be written: Student Growth scores, especially as executed in Florida, are being exposed as the fraudulent metrics they are. It might become public knowledge that Teachers of the Year, respected teachers, teachers that the rest of us aspire to become more like, are getting “Needs Improvement” Student Growth scores.

All this is not to mention Elective teachers like me getting measured on the entire school’s Reading scores — which means I, an Information Technology teacher, am getting measured by students I’ve never met for a subject I don’t teach. Teachers’ livelihood and salary is based on complete nonsense that no one in the government has cared to fix in all the years of its existence.

Except now, they have no choice but to care.

Now, all of a sudden, we get the State admitting — actually, broadcasting to the press — that we “can’t use the data to judge teachers.” We get statements like this from the Superintendent of Duval County Public Schools:

I am convinced that the tools used to evaluate teachers should be consistent, fair, and reliable which they currently are not.

While releasing the data as a public record is not our chosen path to increase its usefulness, we will leverage this opportunity to improve communications and understanding about what these data can – and cannot – tell us

We can educate the public on the need for . . . inclusion of teachers in building quality and accurate statewide assessments.

The release of VAM data erodes the good faith and work of teachers throughout the state.

Aside: Why wasn’t anyone ever concerned about the good faith and work (not to mention morale) of teachers before the scores became public?

Now, let me be clear: time will tell regarding the sincerity of these statements, but I’ll give Dr. Vitti credit for making them, no matter how belated. I am not berating him for making these wonderful statements; quite the opposite, in fact. I’m pointing out that words like these are only being spoken because the scores are being released. And that is my point.

Officials are having to admit publicly that the experiment to measure teachers by student test scores is thus far a complete bust. This is not a surprise to those who have been in the classroom.

How the benefit of this decision to teachers is not obvious to the Union, I’m not sure. We should take advantage of this opportunity. I think teachers who have been wronged by this system should and will be highlighted to uncover the absurdity of systems like CAST, and ultimately, of SB736.

If it weren’t for this, the injustices never would have seen the light of day. I for one am glad they now might be.

Call me an optimist.


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Common Core, even if horrible, will improve classroom instruction

A great friend and superstar teacher asked a great question about Common Core on Facebook today:

My name is Susan Bailey. I am a right winged, conservative, Republican.

If you know me well, you undoubtedly know that I am about as conservative as they come. Red is my favorite color, I even see better out of my right eye, and Reagan is my all time favorite president!

And I support the implementation of the Common Core Standards!

I am scratching my head as to why my conservative friends are so against the implementation of the standards, and so I am inviting you to share your reasons with me. This is not an invitation to bash a party or the president! I am genuinely curious as to why you stand in such opposition. If you leave a comment, please only make reference to the standards! And for my own research, could you also reference the source you used to obtain your information?

This is an honest and sincere attempt to understand – again, do not use it as a platform for heated rhetoric! If you really feel the need to “vent”, please respond in a private message!

Ms. Bailey, the partisan (sometimes bipartisan) controversy surrounding Common Core surprises me as well. So, thank you for reminding me to write about this, even though I’m not really all that conservative. And for the record, I would love to hear an intelligent argument against Common Core. I’m sure some exist, but I have yet to hear one.

To directly answer your question, I would imagine many conservatives see Common Core as a violation of States’ Rights. Which is odd, since states have the right not to adopt Common Core. Five states have exercised this right.

I think such arguments miss the mark, regardless. Because even if it were mandated, some things, like educational standards, are better when consolidated: Think “Critical Mass” and “Economies of Scale”. I believe it doesn’t matter whether Common Core standards are “good” or “bad”, as long as they’re not complete nonsense. You and I know, Ms. Bailey, good teachers can take bad standards and make good lessons; bad teachers can take good standards and make bad lessons.

To reiterate, the main aspect that makes Common Core a Good Thing is critical mass. Tens of millions of students using identical standards will cause an explosion of quality resources for teachers and students. Did someone write a perfect lesson in Idaho? We can now use it in Florida without tweaking.

Why does this matter? Last year I spent hours mapping Khan Academy to Sunshine State Standards for Algebra II. Obviously, Khan Academy can’t trudge through standards for 50 states and thousands of school districts. And if I had unsupportive administration, they could have taken issue with my unofficial mapping and prevented me from using Khan Academy.

But with Common Core, they can map every lesson for every school in the USA… and they have!

For me, the effort of mapping Khan Academy was a roadblock. For others, they are uncomfortable using unofficial resources. This prevented many teachers from being able to use an outstanding resource.

But now, with Common Core, it became worthwhile for Khan Academy to embrace the exact same standards as the teacher. There is no time roadblock, and no political roadblock… both roadblocks removed by Common Core.

Today, millions of teachers can now seamlessly use Khan Academy lessons and exercises that match the standard in their class that day.

If anyone can legitimately tell me why this is bad, I’d love to hear it.

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Khan Academy’s best use for the average teacher? Differentiated instruction.

For those who don’t know, Khan Academy is an outstanding web site funded mainly by the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation that provides online lectures and exercises in multiple disciplines. It is completely free, and provides amazing tools for differentiating instruction and gleaning student data.

In the interest of full disclosure, some educators love Khan Academy, some hate it, yet few seem to understand it — which is why I’m writing this. You can count me firmly in the “love” category; I think it’s one of the greatest things to hit Education in years. So when I found out I was teaching some math classes in a computer lab last year, I was very excited to give it a shot. I asked my principal (Dean Ledford) and assistant principal (Aaron Lakatos) for permission to use Khan Academy as the daily driver for my Algebra II classes, and they agreed to let me use it in class (very supportive administration at Sandalwood in my experience!). I pushed the envelope a little bit and ended up almost exclusively using Khan Academy to teach Algebra II (both Standard and Honors) last year, with, I think, very good results.

I will say that the pure “flipped classroom” model Khan Academy espouses (where watching video lectures is “homework” and the math problems are completed in class with teacher assistance) did not work for me, mostly because (a.) most students (even Honors students) don’t do a lick of homework, and (b.) a shocking number of kids have no computer at home. However, a hybrid version of the flipped classroom that I settled on worked wonderfully.

Basically, I mapped all Algebra II Sunshine State Standards to Khan Academy video lectures, then mapped about 75% of the standards to Khan Academy assignments. The textbook was used to fill in the gaps (there were surprisingly few). I asked students to watch the lectures at home, knowing full well almost no one would do so. I then “reviewed” the video lecture with a quick 15-25 minute lesson with example problems from either the textbook or Khan Academy. The last 60-75 minutes of class, I let the kids do their “homework”, usually on Khan Academy. This, to me, was the main thing the “flipped classroom” experiment taught me as a teacher: shut up, stop lecturing so much, and give the kids time to do their work in class so that (a.) I’m there to make sure they actually do it, and (b.) I’m around when they get stumped.

Khan Academy was an exciting tool to use as a teacher for a number of reasons:

  • True differentiated instruction: I gave enrichment lessons to advanced students and remedial lessons (like fraction arithmetic, the bane of most math students’ existence) to struggling students as needed without using class time.
  • I taught all lessons live, but my pacing guide listed Khan Academy videos that reinforced the day’s standard. This was wonderful for students who needed a lesson explained a different way, or for students who missed a lesson.
  • When stumped on homework, students could ask for “hints” on problems with neither penalty nor credit (very powerful, see below).
  • Students worked unlimited problems until proving “proficiency” in a topic to earn credit.
  • “Proficiency” is earned by answering a consecutive number of problems correctly the first try.
  • I had real-time lists of “struggling” and “proficient” students. When “struggling” with classwork, I walked to their desks and said, “I see you’re having trouble.” They usually were relieved, especially the proud or shy.
  • Homework grades skyrocketed despite higher standards for receiving credit (Proficiency = 100%, anything else = 0%), and dipped down to normal levels on paper assignments.
  • The best part: we can literally see each student learn. Data on one student’s assignment is below:
    Student's Khan Academy Results
  • Blue bars are correct answers, red bars are incorrect answers.
  • Question marks indicate where the student asked for hints. A hint marks the problem “incorrect”, but students are encouraged to use hints as a learning tool, as this student did here.
  • The height of the bar indicates the amount of time spent on the problem.
  • On problem #11, she spent five minutes, then got her first correct answer.
  • She struggled through problems 12-14, then answered 17 of the next 18 correctly on the first try, proving proficiency.
  • A paper assignment of 10-12 problems may have resulted in wrong answers and no mastery. The use of Khan Academy both allowed and required her to press towards mastery.

Khan Academy gives you exactly as many problems as you need. If you get the first five right, and quickly, Khan Academy generally marks students proficient. Students who struggle keep getting more problems until they show proficiency.  As you’d expect, students initially complained about sometimes having to do 30-40 problems to get credit. But the strangest thing started happening: eventually, they started complaining when I gave textbook assignments because (a.) the textbook couldn’t help them as well when they were stumped, and (b.) the textbook didn’t demand proficiency! Students actually complained about this!

This use of Khan Academy (combined with my work in the IT Academy) was featured in an article in the Florida Times-Union complete with one of the worst pictures of me ever taken (“Teachable Moments: Technology Meets Tradition”).

I realize most teachers do not teach in a computer lab. If I ever teach math in a regular classroom again, I would still use Khan Academy for differentiated instruction (enrichment or remediation). It’ll make you look like a champ to your administrators, and more importantly, it’ll help your kids! Khan Academy is also fully available in Spanish for your Spanish-speaking students who are still learning English. Khan Academy has lessons for the following subjects:

  • K-12 Math
  • Science (Chemistry, Biology, Physics, etc.)
  • American Government
  • Economics
  • World History
  • Art History
  • Finance
  • Computer Programming

You seriously can feel free to contact me if you want pointers on getting started on Khan Academy.


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DCPS places value of $0/year on graduate education

In 2011, Duval County stopped paying teachers higher salaries for having “advanced degrees” (Master’s/Specialist/Doctorate).

To my knowledge, we are one of a tiny handful of school districts in the nation that does not do so. Instead, DCPS pays a modest one-time supplement. After that first-year payment, DCPS places no value on the education level of its teachers.

This means a History teacher who majored in English and got certified by cramming for a subject area exam is paid the same as a bona fide historian with a Ph.D. This is not to say the former can’t eventually become a good History teacher, but the fact we value these two the same in DCPS speaks volumes.

DCPS and the teacher’s union (DTU) both inaccurately blame State Law SB736, which has a provision to:

Prohibit districts from using advanced degrees in setting a salary schedule for instructional personnel or school administrators hired on or after July 1, 2011, unless the degree is held in the individual’s area of certification and is only a salary supplement.

Truth be told, I have no problem whatsoever with this clause. As long as a teacher’s master’s degree is related to his/her certification, they still get paid a supplement, and money is money. And it really doesn’t affect many people, because most school districts, like St. John’s County, simply offer a recurring annual supplement to teachers who have a master’s or doctorate in their certified field, which is completely lawful.

The problem in DCPS is that they interpreted the law as a one-time supplement, DTU inexplicably let them get away with it, and no one has fixed the issue in the past three years.

As a paying member of DTU, it’s puzzling that (a.) the union let this happen in the first place, (b.) the union had to be made aware of the issue, (c.) the union has now been “aware of the issue” for two years, (d.) DCPS seems willing to resolve it, and yet it’s still not resolved.

Certainly, this issue certainly reflects poorly on the priorities of DCPS, but I think this issue is an even bigger embarrassment for DTU. They’re supposed to be arguing on our behalf as teachers. I as an individual teacher should not have to be bringing these arguments to their attention.

I apologize if this post appears to be self-serving. But in my opinion, this issue is bigger than a few teachers’ paychecks for two reasons that I’d like you to ponder:

  1. DCPS should make this district attractive to highly qualified and educated teachers. Simple logic suggests that teachers with Master’s/Doctorates who are able to move out of/avoid DCPS, will do so. Why wouldn’t they? And I don’t see how this possible “brain drain” could possibly be good for our students.
  2. When students see their own school board thumbing its nose at having highly educated teachers; when they see that DCPS literally says with their actions that education has no value, how can they believe any of us when we say education is valuable?

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Duval County’s CAST System is worse than using a dartboard

The CAST system is how Duval County rates its teachers. Our salary, retention and termination are completely dependent on this metric. You would think great care would be taken to ensure all teachers are treated fairly. You unfortunately would be incorrect. Through State Law, District Policy, or a combination of the two, the system we use to grade teachers is a mess, and as I think you will see, really tells us almost nothing about the quality of a teacher.

Don’t get me wrong — in all professions, some “bad” workers slip through the cracks; teaching is not an exception, and we must minimize this. But in order to do so, we must be measured properly with qualitative measures.

For the skeptical, you can be the judge of the current quantitative CAST system. I present to the committee: three teachers at Sandalwood marked “Needs Improvement” (bottom 9% of all teachers). They are personal friends, which is the only reason I’m aware of their issues. Each story is being shared with the teacher’s permission. I’m sure there are dozens of others.

Teacher #1 was a three-time Teacher of the Year (in two different schools) and one-time finalist for DCPS Teacher of the Year. He’s a history professor at FSCJ. He created and teaches Holocaust and Vietnam curriculum, and is a dual enrollment teacher. He is a two-time recipient of the quantitative “Needs Improvement” rating. Teacher #2 was a young Math teacher, lauded as a top teacher by administrators and students. Despite her young age, she was selected as Math department head. When I returned to Sandalwood, I was told to observe her as a “master teacher”. She took the initiative and time to visit me during her own planning time, providing course materials, lesson plans and advice when I replaced a teacher mid-year. She received a “Needs Improvement” rating last year, and resigned as a result. Teacher #3 regularly tutors other teachers’ students and coaches multiple sports. He stepped into the GIS Academy mid-year, saving it after a teacher’s death. His students earned multiple industry certifications. He helped secure multiple business partnerships and in-kind donations for the school, but he “Needs Improvement”.

I now ask you: is there any chance these three are part of the bottom 9%? Did lawmakers think the process through properly? Do we truly believe these teachers are the ones who must change?

The effect of all this is, good teachers either resign in disgust, or fight long, protracted, stressful, year-long battles to preserve their careers. I think you will agree these teachers  are fighting battles that shouldn’t have to be fought in the first place. And it’s because some combination of Duval County and the State of Florida did not take the proper steps to ensure a complete, fair system to grade teachers.

Maybe it’s time we realized some things, like the impact and value of a K-12 teacher, can’t be accurately measured with a number.


Filed under DCPS Teacher of the Year Essay

Most Duval high schools were not budgeted full-time librarians

Duval County Public Schools determined this year that school libraries just aren’t that important.

Sandalwood – and nearly every Duval high school – was not budgeted a librarian this year (see the May 2013 DCPS Board Meeting minutes to confirm my statement). A shocking number of low-income kids don’t own a computer, and the Public Library is inaccessible for most; their school library is their only option for research. It is misguided to deem libraries expendable.

Along these lines, I think some of us have lost perspective on Education and are holding the wrong people accountable for the wrong things. Most problems in Education don’t arise from classrooms, but from well-meaning policymakers who are not experts in Education. If we insist on holding Districts and Administrators accountable for quantitative statistics, I believe it should be for things that directly affect classroom instruction, such as:

  • Accuracy of student head-count estimates. For example, Sandalwood has always had 3000-3300 students. This year, DCPS budgeted for 2200. Our final head-count was 3000 students, just like previous years. As a result, First Coast News responded to parent complaints on our 70-80 student math classes that had to be moved to the auditorium. The District hired extra teachers about two months into the year, leading to the next:
  • Percentage of students whose education is interrupted by involuntary schedule changes (Indicative of disorganization and/or lack of preparation for the arrival of students).
  • Percentage of courses with curriculum fully mapped to a textbook with pacing guides (Teachers’ hunting material takes time away from polishing its presentation to students).
  • Percentage of courses, and classes, which issue these textbooks to 100% of students. (Many classes only have class sets of textbooks, meaning students can’t take them home).
  • Percentage of classes below 25/50/75/100/etc. students (The system is currently gamed by assigning enormous numbers to small percentages of classes; this should end).
  • And yes, the percentage of schools with full-time librarians.

Issues like these have a huge impact on student learning, and are completely out of the hands of individual teachers. So before policymakers blame teachers for the problems in Education, insisting we be “measured” for “Student Growth”, perhaps they should considering putting their own house in order, first so our teachers can teach, and our students can learn.


Filed under DCPS Teacher of the Year Essay

“Health Gains”?

A young man with health problems visits his doctor. The doctor is skilled and her knowledge up-to-date. She gives her patient a thorough checkup, blood work and a stress test. The doctor tells the man, “According to this chart, you are 150 pounds overweight. Your blood sugar and cholesterol are high, and your blood pressure is 200/140. But before trying prescriptions or insulin, I want you to try some lifestyle changes. You need to stop smoking, start walking 20 minutes per day immediately, and work your way into jogging. You need to limit your caloric intake to 2,000 calories per day, 65 grams of fat, no more than 20 grams saturated. Start immediately, and I’ll see you in a month.”

The patient comes back, but nothing changes. The doctor says, “Sir, your lifestyle is very bad for your health. If you don’t take responsibility for your health and change your habits, you’re in great risk of a heart attack, and your quality of life is going to suffer until then. If I don’t see a change in the next month, I’ll have no choice but to prescribe medications and put you on insulin.” The patient does nothing, skips the next appointment, and has a massive heart attack two months later. As a result, the doctor’s Health Gains score plummets to the “Needs Improvement” level. The patient sues for malpractice, wins, and the doctor loses her license.

We all know blaming this doctor for a “Health Gains” score is ridiculous; I’d love to hear Governor Scott or a State Legislator explain how blaming a teacher for a “Learning Gains” score is any different.

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Two boys

In 1877 Morgantown, WV, an immigrant coal mine worker and his wife had their first child, a son. This family, like many in West Virginia, had a difficult time keeping food on the table. Soon after the child’s fifth birthday, he began working in the coal mines for $0.50/day as a “trap boy”. His life consisted of sitting in a black, unlit cavern by himself fourteen hours a day, opening and closing a trap door as needed. Luckily, his mine never collapsed while he was inside. His life had neither hope nor opportunity to improve. By the age of 18, he began working with the coal crusher. Tragically, like many coal miners of the day, he was deformed by accidents over the years, and breathing coal dust took a toll on his health. At the age of 35, he lost his life to black lung.

In 1977 Morgantown, WV, an immigrant coal mine worker and his wife had their first child, a son. This family, like many in West Virginia, had to work very hard to keep food on the table. But since Compulsory Education laws were passed 69 years earlier, this boy’s story is quite different. Soon after the child’s fifth birthday, he was in a kindergarten class, learning nursery rhymes and arithmetic. By the age of 18, he had graduated from Terry Parker High School, becoming a National Merit Scholar and earning a full scholarship to Jacksonville University. He earned his degree, went to graduate school, and spent ten years in the Information Technology field, even running his own successful business for a while. He finally found his calling in Education. At the age of 35, he was named Teacher of the Year at Sandalwood High School.

I hope you will forgive me for speaking of myself in the third person. But while trying to put my philosophy of  Education into words, I was overwhelmed with the thought that except for the year I was born, my story could be the first paragraph instead of the second. Thankfully for me – and all of us – we decided as a nation to do something differently. We decided to treat every childhood – not just those of rich, privileged, or educated heritage – as a priceless commodity rather than a consumable resource. People say we as a country don’t care about education, but I strongly disagree. We agreed as a nation to reserve nearly two decades of each human being’s life exclusively as an opportunity to learn. As a teacher, it is my job to ensure that my small corner of this enormous investment into children’s lives is being used wisely.

Nothing more, nothing less.

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